Behaviour couple therapy is concerned about how people learn and unlearn dysfunctional behaviours. The model relies on cognitive behaviour theory whereby the general assumption is that changing the cognitions of an individual is critical to help clients overcome their problematic behaviours and bring about change.

The theory also believes that behaviour is maintained by its consequences. The consequences that accelerate the behaviour are termed reinforcers where as those that hinder the behaviour are termed punishers. Reinforcement occurs when a behavioural response is strengthened by an outcome.

There are two types of reinforcements, negative and positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement occurs when behaviour is strengthened by a positive reward. For example, a husband that puts his dirty socks in a laundry basket is rewarded by his wife with praise and recognition. This reinforces his efforts to pick up his socks.

Negative reinforcement occurs when behaviour is strengthened by the removal of a negative stimulus. For example, wife insuring that dinner is ready on time to reduce the likelihood of the husband getting angry and abusive to her. This reinforces the wife’s behaviour of getting dinner ready early so as to remove the negative stimuli of the husband’s anger.

According to this theory, people in relationships strive to maximise rewards and minimise costs. The cost/ benefit analysis helps clients determine how much effort they should put in to meet their partner’s expectations. It is believed that through this, individuals can have their expectations met.

The cornerstone of this approach is that symptoms of relational dysfunction are learned responses, thus the intervention focuses on the symptoms themselves and therapists are on the lookout for responses that reinforce the problem behaviour (Nichols & Schwartz, 2004; Brown & Brown, 2002).

Assumptions of the Behaviour Couple Model

  1. Behaviour is maintained by its consequences.
  2. Symptoms are learned responses that are caused by involuntary dysfunctional reinforcement.
  3. Behaviour change is best brought about by accelerating positive behaviour and decreasing aversive control, as well as by improving communication and problem solving skills.
  4. Action and not personality is what’s deemed important.
  5. The focus is on dyadic interactions.
  6. Insistence on observation and empirical evaluation.
  7. Treatment is tailored to the specific family.

Goals of Behaviour Couple Therapy

  1. Modify certain patterns of behaviour to improve presenting problems.
  2. Improve positive reinforcements in couples.
  3. Teach new skills (communication, assertiveness and problem solving skills).
    Alter dysfunctional thoughts.
  4. Implement client specific treatment.
  5. Maximize benefits and minimise costs.
  6. Treatment is usually time limited and symptom focused.

(Nichols & Schwartz, 2004; Brown & Brown, 2002; Long & Young, 2007)